Land Ho! (part II)

Thanks to Jack for keeping the site updated while I was away and also posting about my landfall.

Midday Sunday, February 23rd, after 11 days of sailing, I saw land for the first time. It’s funny, over the past day or so, thinking about approach-options to the Virgin Islands and where I make landfall and check-in with customs and immigration, I never really thought about that first sight of land. Also, where HJ and I hail from, South Florida, the land is low—beyond low—and “seeing land” when making landfall means seeing the tops of condominiums over the curvature of the earth. Interesting but not impressive.

Conversely, the first sight of land in the Caribbean is impressive. St. Thomas of the USVI rises 1,700 feet out of the ocean. As I would later find, you can be sailing a quarter-mile off the land and be in 160 feet of water. Also, I knew it was coming because over the past two nights at sea, I’ve been seeing the horizon-glow of the city lights from San Juan, Puerto Rico and Charlotte Amalie, USVI. 

Shortly after noon local time on Sunday (I’ve travelled so far east that I am in the Atlantic Time Zone), I was sitting in HJ’s cockpit while she sailed herself in a south-southwesterly direction. I was taking midday sights with my sextant to determine our geographical position using the sun’s passage over our local meridian (the line connecting the north pole and south pole, and our position). One could argue this is totally unnecessary given that the GPS does this for me many times per minute. However, in my quest to earn my distance, I’ve been teaching myself celestial navigation—more on that coming in a different post. 

Me taking a sun-sight at anchor in a very-calm setting (there’s no way I would try to take a selfie of myself while taking a sextant sight on the open ocean when we’re pitching and rocking)

As you see in the image above, the sextant has a small telescope on it. I’d say it’s about 6 or 8 power, about the same as a weak set of binoculars. When you look through the sextant’s telescope, you see both horizon and the sun superimposed; the way the sextant works, the sun actually appears in front of the horizon. To take the sight, you adjust the sextant until the sun’s image appears to sit on the horizon. Then you note the height of the sun from the sextant’s arc and the exact GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) and do lots of manual calculations. Again, more on this in another post. As I was taking the sight, I saw what looked like a mountain on the horizon. I thought, “What the heck… am I seeing things again?” (wouldn’t be the first time after 11 days) Then I blinked and it was still there. It then hit me that I should be seeing land soon as we were 23 nautical miles out at that point. Crazy because if South Florida weren’t built up, you’d probably be 5-7 miles out before you saw land, it’s that low.

First view of land of the bow (front of boat), 23 nautical miles out
Incidentally, one of my last views of land off the stern (back of boat) 11 days earlier, Harbour Island, Eleuthera, Bahamas

To celebrate, I made myself a glass of limeade and toasted (reamed one lime into a glass, added two teaspoons of sugar and water). Quick aside, British sailors are nicknamed “Limeys” because when it was discovered that lime juice both cured and prevented scurvy (because of the vitamin C), the queen’s sailors were rationed one lime per day when on passage.

The rest of the day, we were sailing hard on the wind (sailing into the wind). Not a sailboat’s fastest point of sail—especially a blue-water cruiser like Hazel. Therefore, it was another 4 hours of sailing before we were really close to the islands. It was fun and exciting to see the sea life and birds change and appear as we approached land. I saw a mixed group of Frigate Birds and Brown Boobies going after a school of baitfish that were being pushed to the surface by larger fish below.

I learned from studying my charts that not far north of the coast of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands lies the Puerto Rico Trench. This oceanic trench is the deepest in the Atlantic and helps define the boundary between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. It’s dizzying to think that you’re sailing over water that is 27,500 feet deep. I know you can just as easily drown in your bathtub but still…. Later, I did some quick internet searches and estimate that if I had dropped a penny in the water over the trench, it would have taken 2 hours and 40 minutes for it to reach the bottom.

As I said, it took me another 4 or so hours of sailing to be in close proximity of the Virgin Islands. Unfortunately this put us at sunset. There’s no way you should be trying to navigate an approach to land in the dark in a area you’ve never sailed before, so I had no choice but to heave-to for the night. Heaving-to consists of putting the boat‘s sails and rudder in a configuration where they purposefully work against each other. Similar to a plane, the boat stalls and moves very little (I averaged ~1 knot for the night [1.2 MPH]). Unlike a plane though, the boat is bouyed by relatively dense saltwater; a plane’s buoyancy comes from the air around it and it will drop like a proverbial stone when it stalls. Still, as in the open-ocean, I had to maintain my schedule of 30 minute cat-naps to check my position, make sure there were no major wind-shifts while I was asleep and make adjustments. 1 knot is dead-slow far from being safely on anchor, especially when you are only a couple miles from land.

Needless to say, I greeted the light in the east around 5:30 AM and the sunrise around 6:30 AM with gratitude.

My first sunrise off the Virgin Islands, the U.s. Virgin islands are to the right, the British Virgin Islands are to the left

The next morning I sailed and motored to Cruz Bay, USVI on the western side of the island of St. John and cleared customs and immigration. I then had a good lunch ashore and also visited the US National Park office while HJ sat at temporary anchor (it’s a busy port-of-entry so I was in a max 3 hour anchoring zone). About 2/3rds of the island of St. John is national park and Hazel and I are excited to explore it after we get cleaned up, organized and lick a few of our wounds. Later that day, as my 3 hours expired, I found a marina with availability on the eastern side of the island of St. Thomas (also USVI). HJ and I motored the several miles to it and tied-up.

All-in-all, we covered 1,160 nautical miles during the 11-day passage (1,300 statue or “land based” miles). Here’s our overall track…

Track. via GPS
Track via paper chart

In the GPS track, you can clearly see the variations from our intended course (the waypoint red “X”s) and our actual course. The wind and currents will do what they will do, oblivious to me, my situation and my desires. Just as clearly as the GPS-track, there is a life lesson there for me and I hope for you.

I have lots of remembrances, written and audio notes, and photos of the passage. If you’ll indulge me to keep following this site, I’ll be posting them as I have time to put them together.

My son Jack graduated with a Master’s Degree in Environmental Policy and Management this past December. It was a powerful and wonderful experience for him. As he finished his last papers and finals, I asked him if he was excited about finishing. I thought his response was so interesting: he said he had mixed-feelings about finishing the program. Although he was excited to get the degree, he would also miss the program, professors, fellow-students and intellectual stimulation. I feel that way about finishing this passage—mixed-feelings but all of them good.

I’m writing this from HJ’s rather messy saloon, a lot happens on passage and on making landfall that you put-off and don’t worry about until later.

A “few things” to clean-up and get organized

Last night I slept like the dead for 10-straight hours. For 12 nights I had been working on a roughly 30-minute catnap cycle. When I finally came-to this morning, I blinked and thought, “Did that all really happen? Was it just a dream?” I poked my head out of Hazel James’ companionway and found that I really was here.

View of the marina the next morning

Thanks as always for reading and I so-appreciate your comments back.

28 thoughts on “Land Ho! (part II)

  1. Dear Dan, Following along with your blog has been a wonderful journey for both of us. We have so enjoyed your writing and witty humor. It is probably too early to think about it now but we think you could certainly write a book about this entire experience.

    Wishing you all the best dear friend…Donna and Steve


    1. Thanks so much Donna. Yes, probably too early but I am thinking about it actually. I think it would be fun to weave all these somewhat disjointed thoughts into a story. Thanks so much for your kind comments and best to Steve. Can’t wait to visit you in AZ at some point.

  2. Dan – This has been literally the most incredible thing to read/follow. Can’t wait to get the extended version next time I see you.

    1. Hey Vincent. So good to hear from you. I was thinking about you during the passage. One time specifically…. You had told me a couple years ago that a dream of yours was to catch your own fish and prepare and eat it—the whole process. On the passage the one fish I caught was a small skipjack tuna. I had some sesame oil and tamari and dried ginger on-board and made myself a bowl of tuna poke.

  3. Hi Dan! Lisa’s friend Sue here. Congrats on your safe passage to St. Thomas! I am really enjoying vicariously your wonderful, brave, and may I say, a little crazy, ventures from afar. Maybe not that crazy after all, given that you seem to have excellent sailing and technical skills to stand you in good stead on this trip. And you are getting to see some of the most beautiful places by the sea in this hemisphere in their full, uncensored glory that the rest of us get in small, safe doses from our plane ride and resort hotel. Kudos to you and keep the pics and details flowing.

      1. Sugar certainly isn’t complaining about the extra fish to chew on. Happy to see you finally following your dream and enjoying it so much

  4. Outstanding Dan! Congrats. After some rest, perhaps you’ll consider continuing your journey south. You’re writing is spectacular and a book would surely be a best seller!

    1. Thanks so much Daniel. Actually I think I’m going to explore the Virgins for a month or so and then island hop my way home (Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos, and more Bahamas). Looking forward to it and thanks for the kind words about a book—I am actually thinking about that.

  5. Light at the end of tunnel… after 11 days of sailing…. very exciting reading of your account. The sailing so far must have brought out all joy in you though it might have been very challenging. Your snaps are superb. Best,

  6. Hey Dan, this is such a great chance to vicariously join you on your travels. Blue water or inland lake, you are the most capable sailor out there! Keep it up buddy… I miss you

    1. Miss you too Paul. It was funny, with lots of time to let my mind wander on the passage, u thought a lot about our Chautauqua days. Man they were good times

  7. Dan, I am thoroughly enjoying reading your blog and it is really educational for me. Stay safe on your journey!!

  8. Such a great adventure, Dan. You are doing an amazing job of sailing, AND an amazing job of documenting your travels and your thoughts. As I read in one other post, a book is a MUST. Your Uncle Bill would love to have seen that. It will be such a good read on so many levels. Enjoy the Virgin Islands – hope you can spend a little time over in Coral Bay, on the east side of St. John. We loved it there. Keep on writing!!

    1. Tom: I’m writing this reply from Coral Bay. I’m at The Oasis enjoying a cold drink and Hazel James is anchored up in Coral Harbor. Beautiful sail this morning all around the area.

      1. Great to hear, Dan! We loved Coral Bay. So much blue — skies, water, etc. Enjoy!

  9. A little behind on my reading so I brought the iPad to the bedroom ..instead of reading my bedside novel im reading your fantastic blog journey! ( I actually sat in on a celestial navigation class for my dad when in high school) dad signed up for the evening course and was out of town for one of them. So I filled in taking notes!

    I can’t believe the 11 day journey! Too bad you can’t film it all!
    Has it been very windy? We’ve had crazy sustainable winds here lately.
    Stay safe!

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